The NBA has been accused of helping run basketball academies in China where children were regularly abused by coaches and staff members at government-run facilities, according to a scathing ESPN report Wednesday that put the league’s relationship with the authoritarian country once again in a harsh spotlight.
The report, published one day before the NBA resumes a season delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, cited several league staffers who spoke on condition of anonymity. The staff members, according to ESPN, said that Chinese coaches physically struck players and that athletes were housed in poor conditions and deprived of schooling that was promised when the academies began their relationship with the NBA.
One former coach described watching a Chinese coach throw a ball into a player’s face and then “kick him in the gut.”
The NBA had three academies in China, including one in the Xinjiang region, in the far northwest of the country, where the government has been accused of perpetrating human rights abuses against the Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority.
“The allegations in the ESPN article are disturbing,” Mark Tatum, the NBA’s deputy commissioner, said in a phone interview with The New York Times. “We ended our involvement with the basketball academy in Xinjiang in June of 2019 and we have been re-evaluating the NBA Academy program in China.”
The NBA’s presence in Xinjiang had already caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington. At the end of June, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., wrote a letter to Commissioner Adam Silver, asking what steps the league was taking to end its involvement with the camp because of the widespread abuses. Tatum responded with a letter on the league’s behalf July 21 to say that the NBA “had no involvement with the Xinjiang basketball academy for more than a year.” The NBA’s response appeared to be its first public acknowledgment of the academy’s closure.
The Chinese government did not immediately respond after the ESPN report appeared early on Thursday morning Beijing time.
A former American coach told ESPN that at the Xinjiang camp, rooms meant for two people were sometimes used to house eight to 10 athletes each. The other two academies are in the Zhejiang and Shandong provinces, both in eastern China. They were also supposed to provide education to the students, but at least one American coach quit, according to ESPN, because of the lack of schooling provided.
According to the NBA Academy website, the players in these academies range from 14-18 years old. Tatum told ESPN that officials in the NBA’s New York office, including Silver, were not aware of broad mistreatment of players.
In Xinjiang, the NBA “didn’t have the authority or the ability to take direct action against any of these local coaches,” Tatum said.
The three government-operated camps in China were already operating before the NBA partnered with them to great fanfare in 2016. They were meant to help develop young Chinese players for professional basketball, in hopes of grooming the next Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets star who became China’s most celebrated basketball celebrity. To find the next Yao, the NBA was to bring elite coaching to the camp. (ESPN, a league broadcast partner, owns a stake in NBA China, the entity that oversees the league’s operations in the country.)
“Nothing is more important than to grow the game of basketball here in China,” Silver said at the time. “We’re thankful for the terrific reception we’ve had in China. It’s very important that we give back as well. One of our means of giving back is to help develop elite players here.”
The next year, the NBA launched academies in India, Australia and Africa, and one in Mexico City, in 2018, more targets for a league that has long touted its international growth.
Nowhere has that growth been more apparent than in China, where the NBA has more fans than it does in the United States. But the NBA and the Chinese government have been on the outs since the fall, when a social media post by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, appeared to support pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong — just as the NBA was going to play preseason games in China.
The Chinese government was furious, setting off an unusual dispute that intertwined professional sports, international politics and business. According to Silver, the Chinese government wanted Morey fired, a request the league denied, and NBA games were taken off the air on China Central Television, the state-run television network. Silver has said that the NBA will likely lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue as a result of the rift.
Silver has maintained an interest in repairing relations with China.
“We’ve continued a dialogue with the Chinese, with our business partners there. In certain cases, with certain government officials,” Silver said recently in an interview with Time magazine. “And you know, we’re just going to keep at it. We’ve had a long history in China. And certainly this is a bump in the road in our relations.”